Recently, it suffered from sagging academics, poor morale and an enrollment that had dropped by one third.
Its headmaster, Andy Vadnais, understood that to save his school he would have to do something radical. Correspondent Scott Pelley reports.
Where was the school at its lowest point? "It was having difficulty recruiting students," says Vadnais. "It was having difficulty retaining students. It was having difficulty meeting expenses. The word out there was South Kent is one or two years away from closing its doors."
Vadnais wasn't going to let that happen to his beloved school. Although South Kent's academic problems had been fixed, students were not beating a path to its door. Knowing that he had to change the school's image fast, Vadnais hit upon an unlikely solution: with alumni chipping in with scholarships, he would turn tiny South Kent into a national basketball powerhouse.
Enter the high-flying Cardinals, who migrated to South Kent from cities all across America, as well as Ireland, England, and Burkina Faso in West Africa. Together, they have taken the school's former image problems and slam-dunked them into oblivion.
How did Vadnais build a basketball team from scratch? "I hired the right coach," says Vadnais.
Coach Raphael Chillious knows his way around the high school basketball scene. When he got the job, the players he'd recruited for his previous school, some among the top athletes in the country, followed him to South Kent. The league they play in is called the "prep" league. With most players taking an extra year of high school before going on to college, it's the most competitive league in high school sports.
"[It's a] very tough neighborhood. I don't think there's a tougher neighborhood in America," says Vadnais. "The New England Class A prep school league has to be the toughest in the country. Currently four of our teams in our league are in the top six -- in the country."
And how is his team doing? "We're doing very well," says Chillious. "Last weekend, we beat the No. 1 team in the country who was in our league. We beat the No. 4 team in the country who was in our league."
Three players are part of the reason why South Kent is so good: Cheyenne Moore, 6'6", Dorell Wright, 6'8", and Jermaine Middleton, nearly 7'4".
"You guys know a lot of basketball players. You got a lot of pals all across the country," says Pelley. "When you tell them that you're at South Kent, what do they say?"
"Where's South Kent? Oh, we could beat you guys," says Wright.
But the competition is not saying that any more.
Most of South Kent's graduating ballplayers are heading straight for Division One schools on full athletic scholarships. Skeptics might say they're basketball mercenaries, hired guns who market South Kent in return for the passing grades they need to get into college. Vadnais says it isn't happening there.
"You ask them that. When you interview them, ask them. And they're going to tell you," says Vadnais. "Nobody gives them anything here in terms of...they have to earn everything they get."
"I've never really read any books when I was growing up," says Moore. "This is my first place that I've actually read my first book."
Which books did he like? "I read 'The Merchant of Venice' by William Shakespeare," says Moore. "I loved Shakespeare. I just like Shakespeare as a guy. He's cool."
"My English teacher, she's on me so tough. She comes to my room at night to make sure I'm doing my work. I mean I never – that's unheard of at home," says Middleton.
"And the best thing about it, all your teachers stay on campus, too," adds Wright. "So you need help, you just walk down to a dorm or your dorm parents' house. And your teachers are right there helping you."
Chillious, who teaches psychology and history when he's not on the basketball court, was attracted to South Kent because he believed its emphasis on academics and character development would help the players.
"You gotta get up at a certain time in the morning. You have to be at class on time. You have to go to chapel. You know, you have to be at dinner on time," says Chillious. "You have to wear a shirt and tie, you know, and a jacket. You know some of that stuff is really unheard of."
And while the team was learning to mind its Ps and Qs, classmates were learning the ABCs of rooting for them. "We don't have a home court advantage, because our fans are too polite," says Vadnais. "The kids didn't know how to cheer. They didn't know how to be loud."
Loudness was not in the South Kent lexicon. Founded in 1923 on the principles of self-reliance, simplicity of life and directness of purpose, the Episcopal school could not have predicted that salvation would come through basketball. Or that basketball would be the tool to market its traditional beliefs. Wright came to the elysian fields of South Kent from the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles.
"I had about 11 friends that got killed since four years of high school, basically die of gang-related stuff, or that wasn't even in a gang," says Wright. "They just got shot for no reason. Just being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
For Middleton, the transition from California to Connecticut was a little scary. "I was looking for my dorm [my first week here] and couldn't find it," recalls Middleton. "So I'm hearing like rattlesnake noises and all that kind of stuff. And I'm thinking, 'I think there's a rattlesnake.' So I'm, like, freaking out."
Middleton says it turned out to be tree frogs.
Behind the humor is a pitfall: How will these young men -- of modest means and working-class backgrounds -- be affected by living in a tightly knit and fairly affluent community?
Tony Morone, who came to South Kent two years ago, wasn't sure it would work. "I was excited, but I didn't know if they were going to be too cocky, or if they were going to try to separate themselves from the school," says Morone.
"When they came to school not many people knew 'em. They all hung out together. And once they felt the community itself, we all came together. And it was like one big family again," adds Morone.
"I think everybody accepted them as soon as they came on campus and they accepted us as soon as they got the chance for them to get to know us."
Getting to know people at South Kent isn't hard. There are seldom more than eight kids in a class, and when it's someone's birthday, everyone sings along. Spend any time at all at South Kent and you are soon aware that the affection between the team and the rest of the school is real.
Tomorrow he may be in the NBA; today he's just another student – albeit, one you look up to.
How have admissions at South Kent changed since basketball started?
"I'm a lot busier. We're fielding phone calls, you know, all day long. I actually have been bugging the board of trustees to hire a new staff member for me," says Trip Darren, South Kent's director of admissions. "Because we can't currently handle all the correspondence we're getting from families."
Before, no one was talking about South Kent. But now, Darren says basketball has "created excitement that people talked about."
"And once people started talking about South Kent, the hope is that they'll start to hear about other things that are going on in our classroom," says Darren. "It's interesting that we made incredible strides in our academic program, but yet no one heard about us. And it took the sports to get people to talk."
60 Minutes II went to the last home game for the South Kent Cardinals. A win against New Hampton, which beat them by two points earlier in the schedule, would be a glorious ending to a glorious season.
When 60 Minutes II first heard about South Kent's basketball program, it thought it would find a school that had put sports ahead of academics simply to stay in business. What it found was something else: A school that is using basketball to market itself without neglecting the values that have kept it alive for 81 years.
Since B>60 Minutes II visited South Kent, Dorell Wright was picked by the Miami Heat in the first round of the NBA draft.
Coach Raphael Chillious recruited a brand new team of players, including the best seven-footer in high school hoops. Going into this new basketball season, little South Kent is ranked No. 4 in the nation.